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LETTEI\ FI\OM NOI\WAY

THE INEXPLICABLE
Inside the mind ofa mass killer.
BY KAI\L OVE KNAU5GAAI\D
orway is a small country. It is also
relatively homogeneous and egalitarian. This means that the distance
from top to bottom is short, and that
great disasters affect the entire populace. For example, every Norwegian
knows someone who knows someone
who died when the Alexander Kielland
drilling rig capsized, in 1980-I recall

May 17th, National Constitution Day,


people don their nicest clothes, whether
these be bunads, suits, or dresses, retrieve their flags and ribbons with Norwegian colors, and spill onto the streets
to watch children sing songs about Norway, while everyone shouts hurrah and
waves flags in a show of patriotism that
encompasses every layer of society and

his mother's fiat in Oslo's West End,


changed into a police uniform, parked
a van containing a bomb, which he
had spent the spring and summer making, outside Regjeringskvartalet, lit
the fuse, and left the scene. While the
catastrophic images of the attack, which
killed eight people, were being broadcast across the world, Breivik headed
to Ut0)'a. That was where the Workers'Youth League had its annual summer camp. There Breivik shot and
killed sixty-nine people, in a massacre
that lasted for more than an hour, right
until the police arrived, when he immediately surrendered.
He wanted to save Norway. Just
a few hours before detonating the
bomb, Breivik e-mailed a fifteen-hun-

Before he massacred seventy-seven people, Anders Behring Breivik said that he was going to make hisfother proud
that my brother had a schoolmate whose
father died in the disaster- or when, a
decade later, a ferry, the Scandinavian
Star, burned and a hundred and fiftyeight of the passengers died. There is
also something deeply sincere, almost
innocent, about Norwegian culture.
Practically every time something about
Norway or one of its people appears in
the foreign press, the Norwegian media
mention this with pride. And every
28

THE NEW YOI\KER. MAY 25, 2015

plays out in every part of the country.


The celebration takes place without
irony and is essentially unpoliticalboth the left and the right are united
in this sea of flags and children. This
says something about the country's egotism, but also about its harmlessness.
It was out of this world that the
thirty-two-year-old Anders Behring
Breivik stepped when, on the afternoon ofJuly 22, 2011, he set out from

dred-page manifesto to a thousand recipients, in which he said that we were


at war with Muslims and multiculturalism and that the slaughter of the
campers was meant to be a wake-up
call. He also uploaded to YouTube a
twelve-minute video that revealed, with
propagandistic simplicity, what was
about to happen in Europe: the Muslim invasion.
The shock in Norway was total.

:!!

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After the Second World War, the most


serious political assault in the country
had been the so-called Hadeland Murders, in 1981. Two young men, members of a small neo-N azi underground
movement, Norges Germanske Arme,
were killed. Breivik's crime was radically different. The television broadcasts of the scene were chaotic; the
journalists and anchorpeople were just
as affected by the events as the people
they were interviewing; one read in
their eyes and their body language incredulity, shock, confusion. The usual
detachment with which news is delivered had collapsed. Indeed, at that moment it seemed as if the world stood
open.
Like many Norwegians, I cried
when I learned what had happened,
and in the days following. The assault
penetrated every defense, for the deaths
we were used to seeing in the media
had always happened in other places,
in foreign cities and countries, but this
had happened in our own world, in
the midst of things so well known and
familiar that we couldn't see it coming. It had happened at home.

ow it is almost impossible to believe. After the shock of the first


few days, and the sorrow of the following weeks, the events ofJuly 22nd
have shuttered themselves. The most
striking aspect of the ten-week trialwhich took place a year later, and at
which we were given our first glimpse
of Breivik, and his entire life and his
every environment were documented
and analyzed-was how normalized
both the perpetrator and the crime
had become. It was as if the fact that
he was a human being like us, who defended his point of view, subsumed
the incomprehensible: suddenly, Breivik was the measure, not his crime.
One ofBreivik's victims called him "a
jerk'' in the newspaper; numerous commentators described him as small, petty,
pathetic. Some devoted themselves to
finding the holes in his arguments;
others described his missteps and his
misconceptions. This reduction of the
perpetrator, the act of making him
seem less dangerous, is understandable, because a person in and of himself is small, but that does not mean
we understand any more about how

this act of terror was possible. On the


contrary, in the wake of the trial, it is
as if the two entities, the unimaginable
crime and the man who committed it,
were irreconcilable.
An initial court-ordered psychiatric review concluded that Breivik
suffered from paranoid schizophrenia,
but a second review diagnosed only
"dissocial personality disorder" and "narcissistic traits." The court ruled that he
was not psychotic.
What can prompt a relatively wellfunctioning man to do something so
horrific? In the midst of a stable, prosperous, and orderly country? Is it possible to ever comprehend it?
Based on Breivik's political rhetoric and his self-understanding, and also
on his chosen targets-Regjeringskvartalet and the ruling party's youth
organization-it is natural to draw a
comparison between his act and the
1995 bombing in Oklahoma City,
where Timothy McVeigh, in an antigovernment protest, parked a truck
bomb outside a federal building and
murdered a hundred and sixty-eight
people. Indeed, Breivik took the Oklahoma City bombing as a model for
the first part of his attack. However,
almost everything else regarding Breivik and his crime points away from
the political and the ideological and
toward the personal. He made himself a sort of military commander's
uniform, in which he photographed
himself before the crime; he consistently referred to a large organization,
of which he claimed to be a prominent member but which does not exist;
in his manifesto he interviews himself as if he were a hero; and the impression this gives is of a person who
has erected a make-believe reality, in
which his significance is undisputed.
The way in which he carried out his
crime, and the way his thoughts contextualized it, resembles role-playing,
rather than political terrorism. The
solitude this implies is enormous, not
to mention the need for self-assertion.
The most logical approach is to view
his actions as a variation on the numerous school massacres that have occurred in the past decades in the United
States, Finland, and Germany: a young
man, a misfit, who is either partly or
completely excluded from the group,

Winner of the
National Book Award
in Nonfiction
Finalist for the
Pulitzer Prize
in General Nonfiction

Winner of the Overseas


Press Club of America's
Cornelius Ryan Award
National Bestseller

AGE OF AMBITION I
CHASIN GFORTUNE
TRUTH. FAITH ,
NEW CHINA
IQJ

''A splendid and entertaining


picture of 21st-century China?'
-Michael Fathers.
The Wall Street Journal

"Osnos beautifully portrays


the nation in all its craziness,
providing a ringside seat for the
greatest show on earth?'
-The Economist

''A riveting and troubling


portrait of a people in a state
of extreme anxiety about their
identity, values and future?'
-Judith Shapiro,
The New York Times

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


~ www.fsgbooks.com

takes as many people with him into


death as he can, in order to "show" us.
A few months before Breivik carried
out the assault, he visited his former
stepmother and told her that soon he
was going to do something that would
make his father proud. His mother had
left his father when he was one, and it
had been years since Breivik had spoken to him.
He wanted to be seen; that is what
drove him, nothing else.
Look at me. Look at me. Look
at me.

sequences that his actions have had for


the affected families, for us his list of
complaints is, in its triviality, almost
unbearable to read. It is as if Hannah
Arendt's notion of the banality of evil
had, in Breivik's case, received an additional twist.AdolfEichmann, the man
whom Arendt wrote about, belonged
to an organization and a bureaucracy
and a structure, all of which he obediently served, and which protected him

oday, Breivik sits in a prison outside Oslo. He was given a twentyone-year term that can be extended
indefinitely-Norway's maximum sentence. Following the intense media
scrutiny after the attack and during the
trial, there is now almost complete silence around him. The last item concerning Breivik to surface in the news
came earlier this year, when he conveyed his intention of suing the government over his prison conditions.
This followed a long series of accusations about everything ranging from
the fact that his game console hadn't
been properly upgraded from PlayStation 2 to PlayStation 3 to his having
been issued an ergonomically incorrect
rubber pen that caused hand cramps.
"If it were theoretically possible to develop rheumatism, I am convinced that
this rubber pen would be capable of
causing it," he wrote. "It is a nightmare
of an instrument and I am frustrated
by its use." Because Breivik sees himself as an author, and wants to devote
himself to this work in the coming decades, the writing tool is of the utmost
importance. "The fact that I must,
therefore, envision a future with nothing more than a dysfunctional rubber
pen, appears, therefore, as an almost
indescribable manifestation of sadism."
Knowing what he did that summer
day almost four years ago, when he
walked around an island full of youths
and shot everyone he saw, many face
to face-indeed, when the court reviewed the autopsy reports, we learned
of a girl whose lips remained unscathed,
though she was shot in the mouth, because Breivik shot her at close range
while she presumably screamed for help
or for mercy-and knowing the con30

THE NEW YOI\KEI\, MAY 25, 2015

from ultimate insight into the consequences of his actions. In contrast,


from the very first moment Breivik
was utterly alone, and his smallness
and wretchedness, which were, in a way,
grotesquely inflated by his actions, make
it all the more difficult to reconcile oneself to the crime, which the media have
termed "the worst attack on Norwegian soil since the Second World War."
And it is not, as one might think,
Breivik's isolation in prison that has
brought out this side of him. In the
best and most comprehensive book
to date on the Ut0ya massacre, Asne
Seierstad's "One ofUs," the author describes what occurred in the hours following Breivik's arrest. While corpses
were lying around the island in pools
of blood, and many of the wounded
had yet to be transported to shore,
Breivik was interrogated in the camp's
wooden headquarters. For the police,
the situation was unclear, and the essential thing was to find out whether
Breivik had acted alone, or if there were
more terrorists. For his part, Breivik
was concerned that he might die of dehydration, since he had taken a combination of ephedrine, caffeine, and aspirin earlier that day. He was given a
soda before questioning began. Moments later, his concern shifted to a cut
on his finger. Seierstad writes:
"Look, I'm hurt," he said. "This will have to
be bandaged up. I've already lost a lot of blood."
"You'll get no fucking plasters from me,"
muttered the policeman who was taking

messages between the interview room and


the room next door, where they were in contact with the staff in Oslo.
"I can't afford to lose too much blood,"
Breivik said. "And I've lost half a litre already." He claimed that the blood loss could
make him pass out.
Sticking plasters were procured.
While the plasters were being applied,
Breivik wondered why he was bleeding. He
remembered hitting his finger when he shot a
victim in the head at close range. Something
had flown into his finger and then popped
out again. It must have been a bit of skull, he
told the officers in the room.
The cut was logged as five millimetres
long. The interrogation could continue.

Breivik's concern for the tiny cut on


his finger, which occurs just minutes
after he has taken the last of seventyseven lives, and the remarkable insensitivity to which this testifies, could
perhaps be attributed to the fact that
he was high on stimulants, as well as
intoxicated by the murders themselves,
and so had been placed in a state of
unreality-were it not for the fact that,
years later, there is no sign that he has
changed.
He is a person filled to the brim
with himself And that is perhaps the
most painful thing of all, the realization that this whole gruesome massacre, all those extinguished lives, was the
result of a frustrated young man's need
for self-representation.
As that initial interrogation was
winding to a close, Breivik was asked
to undress. Seierstad describes it thus:
Finally, he was standing there in a room
of uniformed men in his underpants. He
started posing, trying to look macho. Now
he was all for having his picture taken. He
looked into the camera and thrust out his
chest. His hands were clasped at one hip
while he held his body taut in a classic bodybuilding pose, to make his muscles bulge as
much as possible.
For a moment, the policemen were nonplussed. In another setting, another crime, it
might have been ridiculous, but here ... it was
grotesque, it was simply incomprehensible.
Who on earth were they dealing with here?

n many ways, I find it repellent to


write about Anders Behring Breivik. Every time his name appears in
public, he gets what he wants, and becomes who he wants, while those whom
he murdered, at whose expense he asserted himself, lost not only their lives
but also their names-we remember
his name, but they have become numbers. And yet we must write about him,
we must think about the crisis that

Breivik's actions represent. I was in


contact with Asne Seierstad when she
began work on the book, I read an early
version of the first chapters, and we
discussed them-Norway, as I said, is
a small country, we are both authors
and members of the same generation,
and by that point I had written two
essays on Breivik and the Ut0ya massacre. What Seierstad underscores in
the title, "One of Us," is that the victims, the perpetrator, and the author
all belong to the same culture. And
that is, perhaps, the book's most important point: the victims and the perpetrator are granted equal footing, so
that the book becomes a history of the
country in which both they and we
grew up.
I believe this perspective is essential. I do not believe that Breivik himself has anything to teach us. I believe
that his life is a coincidence of unfortunate circumstances, and what he did
was such an anomaly that it makes no
sense even to guard ourselves against
it. We know that he grew up with a father who was not there for him, and
with a mother who, without being aware
of it, neglected him in ways that destroyed him so completely that, really,
he had no chance. Part of his mother's
character was the inability to perceive
herself in relation to others, even her
own children. She had been abused as
a child, and her narcissistic traits were
reflected in her son. Nonetheless, the
world is full of difficult childhoodssome people succumb, while others
prevail, but no one murders sixty-nine
people, one after another, single-handedly. The world is also full of people
with narcissistic tendencies-I am one
of them-and it is full of people who
cannot empathize with others. And the
world is full, too, of people who share
Breivik's extreme political ideas but
who do not consider them ground to
murder children and young people.
Breivik's childhood explains nothing,
his character explains nothing, his political ideas explain nothing.
Until his moment of decision, Breivik appears to have been an ordinary
person, the kind you might meet anywhere. He had a difficult upbringing,
to be sure, but that is more common
than one might think; he had yet to
find his place in life, he was not who

he wanted to be, but that is also a relatively common experience. His great
inner conflicts were something that he
kept secret, even from himself It was
only when he carried out a terrorist attack that he stood out. When I read
about him, I can follow him up to that
point, my empathy stretches that far,
but it goes no further.
What does it take to kill another
person? Or, to put it another way, what
is it that prevents us from killing?

n the book "Bagdad Indigo," about


the American invasion of Iraq in
2003, my friend Geir Angell0ygarden
asks what can impel one person to kill
another. It is one of the most difficult
things you can bring someone to do.
Even after people have been issued
uniforms, weapons, and permission
to take the enemy's life, they will balk.
Releasing bombs over a populated
area is one thing, but killing those
same people at close range, face to
face, is another. What makes the difference? It is the face, the eyes, their light.
After the Second World War, the
U.S. military leadership became concerned that many soldiers were not
shooting to kill, and it adopted new
training methods. If soldiers merely
trained with numbered bull's-eyes, encountering real faces on the battlefield
might prove too harrowing. Instead,
they train with masked targets that appear human, but are not. This dehumanization process is what is at work

on the battlefield; soldiers see masks,


images, not people. One of the American soldiers 0ygarden interviewed in
Iraq put it like this: "My enemy doesn't
have a face. He doesn't have a face. He
has, I guess, what you would call a target on him. That's what I go for. I don't
see a human being. I can't see a human
being."
In other words, society has protective systems in place that should make
Breivik's actions, and the actions of
those who mow down their fellow-students, impossible. I am not thinking
of child protective services or of schools
or of any civic authority, not even the
police; rather, I am thinking of the
bonds among people, the presence of
the other in ourselves, and the responsiveness around which every community and culture is built, which reveals
itself in the commandment we see in
the faces of others: do not kill.
Even in the military, where killing
is not only socially acceptable but something that soldiers are encouraged to
perform, the inner resistance to killing
another is so strong that it must be
broken down systematically. This still
means that, under certain circumstances,
conscience, shame, and the insight that
other human lives are inviolable can
be set aside. We know that such circumstances do arise, and not only for
soldiers. Hannah Arendt writes in
"Eichmann in]erusalem":
And just as the law in civilized countries
assumes that the voice of conscience tells

"The two things that really drew me to vinyl were


the expense and the inconvenience."

everybody "Thou shalt not kill," even though


man's natural desires and inclinations may at
times be murderous, so the law of Hitler's
land demanded that the voice of conscience
tell everybody: "Thou shalt kill," although
the organizers of the massacres knew full
well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people.

Murder is against human nature,


but in extreme cases this can be overcome if the community to which one
belongs enjoins or encourages it. The
events that are now occurring in Iraq
and Syria, the brutal murders committed by the Islamic State, cannot be
ascribed to people having suddenly
become evil but, rather, to the disintegration of the mechanisms that in a
civilized society typically prevent people from engaging in rape and murder.
A culture of war and murder has arisen.
It happened in Rwanda and in the Balkans. It is one of the possibilities human
beings contain within themselves.
However, it is so distant from what
most of us experience that we cannot
begin to identifY with it. They burn
prisoners in cages. The ruthlessness and
the indifference to life that these actions suggest are unfathomable.
Breivik's deed, single-handedly killing seventy-seven people, most of
them one by one, many of them eye
to eye, did not take place in a wartime
society, where all norms and rules were
lifted and all institutions dissolved; it
occurred in a small, harmonious, wellfunctioning, and prosperous land during
peacetime. All norms and rules were
annulled in him, a war culture had
arisen in him, and he was completely
indifferent to human life, and absolutely ruthless.
That is where we should direct our
attention, to the collapse within the
human being which these actions represent, and which makes them possible. Killing another person requires a
tremendous amount of distance, and
the space that makes such distance possible has appeared in the midst of our
culture. It has appeared among us, and
it exists here, now.

he most powerful human forces


are found in the meeting of
the face and the gaze. Only there do
we exist for one another. In the gaze
of the other, we become, and in our
own gaze others become. It is there,
32

THE NEW YOJ\KEI\, MAY 25, 2015

too, that we can be destroyed. Being


unseen is devastating, and so is not
seeing.
Breivik remained unseen, and it destroyed him. He then looked down,
and he hid his gaze and his face, thereby
destroying the other inside him. Five
years before the massacre, Breivik isolated himself in a room at his mother's flat; he saw practically no one, refused visits, hardly ever went out, and
just sat inside playing computer games,
World ofWarcraft mostly, hour after
hour, day after day, week after week,
month after month. At some point,
this fantasy took over Breivik's reality,
not because he experienced a psychotic
break but because he discovered models of reality that were as uncomplicated and manageable as those of the
game, and so, incited by the power of
his fantasies, especially by what they
enabled him to become-a knight, a
commander, a hero-he decided to
bring them to life. He had been a nobody-that is to say, dead-and suddenly he arose on the other side, no
longer nobody, because, by virtue of
undertaking the inconceivable, which
was now conceivable, he would become somebody.
And he had no one there to correct
him-his eyes were cast down.

n a remarkable moment during the


trial, Breivik described how he had
stood before a group of young people, who were lined up against a cabin
wall, preparing to shoot them. He
thought it very strange that they did
not move, did not run, but just stood
there, since he had never seen people
behave that way in any movie. Indeed,
he moved about the island as if he
were in a film or a game, but the deaths
he caused did not occur on some other
plane, separated from his physical time
and place; everything was real, concrete, absolute. Every shot struck flesh,
every eye that dimmed was real. With
his capacity for displacement, his capacity for reshaping the outer world
in his own image, he narrated his
deeds without expression to the courtroom, and he listened to the survivors'
accounts without expression, even
though everyone else, the judges as
well as the journalists and the next
of kin, sat and cried. His victims still

remain images to him. He knows what


he did, but he has no conception of
the devastation. Only an individual
self can feel for another, and Breivik
no longer possesses that self; it is dead.
His identity, carefully constructed, replete with a new body, a new psyche,
desensitized and ruthless, is a soldier's
identity, a hero's identity, and that
conflicts with everything that he was;
indeed, combats it. It is as if he had
personified an image and transformed
it into something seemingly absolute,
into flesh and blood, but the actual
absolute, the young peoples' bodies,
he has converted to images, pixels,
digits.
Everything in Anders Behring
Breivik's history up until the horrific
deed can be more or less found in
every life story; he was and is one of
us. The fact that he did what he did,
and that other young men, misfits,
have shot scores of people, implies
that the necessary distance from the
other is attainable in our culture, probably more so now than it was a couple of generations ago. Still, we all inhabit this culture, we all move between
fiction and reality, between image and
material, and the distance to the other
is no straightforward quantity, and
neither is the act of averting one's
gaze. In order to see the culture, one
must stand outside it; in order to see
the individual, one must stand outside him. This is the duality that characterizes "One ofUs," especially when
Seierstad writes about the murders
on the island, which are precisely, explicitly, and technically described,
without emotion, but with a distance
from everything beyond the bullets'
trajectories and the bodies' positions.
The result is that "Ut0ya" and "July
22nd" assume new meaning for me
when I read the book. Once again,
that day becomes something concrete,
not a phenomenon, not an affair, not
an argument in a political discussion
but a dead body bent over a stone at
the water's edge. And, once again, I
cry. Because that body has a name, he
was a boy, he was called Simon. He
had two parents and a little brother.
They will mourn him for the rest of
their lives.+
(Translated, from the Norwegian,
by Kerri Pierce.)